Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Ponette (1996)

The kingdom of childhood.  I’ve no idea where that expression first appeared, but it sprang to mind anew as I watched Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996). I don’t know if I have ever watched a film that more thoroughly captures the world as seen through the eyes of young children. Half the credit must go to Jacques Doillon himself, who spent hundreds of hours interviewing children so he could help his very young cast be true to the story he created with them.  The rest of our praise falls on the very small shoulders of the actors themselves.  Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, who plays Ponette, won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.  She deserved it.  Equally impressive are the performances of her like-aged co-stars, Matiaz Bureau Caton, Delphine Schiltz, and Léopoldine Serre.

The actual plot of Ponette scarcely fills a file-card.  A four-year-old girl is in a car accident with her mother.  Ponette suffers a broken arm.  Her mother dies.  Her father’s self-pity leaves no room for his daughter.  He drops her off with an aunt who has two children, Delphine (Schiltz) and Matiaz (Caton).  The family lives in an old stone farmhouse in the mountains of southern France.  Later, the children move to town to attend school.  Ponette devotes all of her imagination, her passion, her energy, and her intelligence to coming to terms with her impossible loss.

Had Ponette been a more typical movie of its kind, there would have been sub-plots galore.  The father would have been struggling with suicidal depression, the aunt would have been a martinet, a saintly grandparent would have appeared to Make Sense of It All, the children would have gotten themselves trapped somewhere with Time Running Out or would have been Kidnapped by Terrorists plotting an attack on the Cannes Film Festival, and Ponette would have learned a Very Important Lesson.  The viewer would have been compelled to weep at Loss and smile blissfully through Redemption.

Even less mercenary movie directors tend to use children to tell stories which, although they may be about children, are somewhat distanced from them by an adult sensibility.  This applies even to strong films with strong performances by young actors, films such as The Scent of Green Papaya, Au Revoir les Enfants, and The Piano.  With Ponette, director Jacques Doillon lets his actors, particularly Thivisol, speak without a translator or ulterior motives

Back to the kingdom of childhood.  The word “kingdom” conjures up an inexhaustible pageant peopled by kings, queens, knights, nobles, philosophers, alchemists, austringers, clerics, fools, wizards, trouvères, trulls, turf boys, jongleurs, villeins and serfs.  A world so rich that Arthur’s Camelot, for example, will continue to give birth to new tales to the end of recorded time.  What Ponette makes us all appreciate is that a young girl’s mind, faced with trying to comprehend as devastating a loss as that of a parent, is as rich a kingdom as Camelot.  Virtually anything which anyone may say to her can be transmuted more magically than dross into gold.  Adults try to comfort Ponette with stories of Christ’s resurrection and the afterlife, but their stories are confounded with those of her cousins and schoolmates.  During the time of the Arian heresy, medieval theologians argued for decades over two Greek words (homoousios and homoiousios) that had one letter’s difference between them; their theology is shamed by the sublime innocence, ignorance, sincerity, spontaneity, skepticism and faith of Ponette and her companions.

Not that the film puts down adults.  That would be condescending and unworthy.  It’s just that the theology of four-year-olds is a marvelous work-in-progress, rather than a dogma.  There are conversations like this one, between Ponette and Matiaz:

–“I don’t want to play.  I’m waiting for my mother.”

–“Dead people never come back.”

–“Jesus did it for his friends.  I’m more than a friend.”

–“Grandpa never came back.”

–“Because no one was waiting for him.”

Kids are also closer to the heart of ritual than are most adults at any but the most intense moments of their lives.  Everyone knows that if a girl kisses a candy and a boy eats it, he must love that girl forever. Told by Matiaz that a gift will let her mother know she loves her, and perhaps call her back, Ponette stands in a field with arms outstretched, fists clenched, one hand holding a feather, a pine cone, and some leaves.  One student at school, Ada (Serre), a “child of God” whose role model is Joan of Arc rather than Barbie, assigns Ponette a series of “trials” which will make her worthy of holding direct conversations with God (“Some people can order God around a little.  I can make God stop talking.  Sometimes he talks too much.  God told me, ‘You have to undergo great trials.’  You want me to give you a trial tomorrow?”)

Some of Ponette’s trials are much harsher than Ana’s invented ones.  Ponette’s father resents what he sees as his relative’s facile comfort in religion.  He tells her she’s just acting crazy with her prayers and her talk of calling her mother back: “God doesn’t talk to the living.  God’s for the dead, not for us.  Your mommy wasn’t afraid to die, so spare me all this Jesus and God stuff.”  In the school playground, a boy tells Ponette that she killed her mother—mothers only die because their children are mean.  At night, there comes the frightening time when Ponette’s mother is suddenly absent even from her dreams.

As remarkable as what the children say in this film is their body language when they say it.  Doillon uses a lot of very close up photography.  It’s possible because children seem to have a radically different sense of personal space than adults.  They communicate passionately with noses and bodies inches apart.  They touch one another on hair, cheeks, shoulders with a gently intimacy which could probably save a lot of adult relationships if we could preserve it past the age of four or five, or beyond those first blissful days after becoming lovers.  Doillon deepens the sense of intimacy of his film even further by eliminating the musical score.  Gestures and words are surrounded by silence.

At her aunt’s home in the mountains, and in the small town in which she attends school, Ponette has the space to heal and to play.  She is left alone to work through her grief, or left free to interact with her peers.  This is in contrast to what some people have commented on recently in regards to how our society may have stolen play—its freedom and its risks—from our children.  Particularly in larger cities, parents’ fears for their children’s safety has led them to structure play in such a way that nothing is left to chance.  Moving into a new neighborhood, for instance, what parent would think of telling their child to get on a bike and “go explore”?  Is our collective paranoia justified, or is it just paranoia?  How dangerous is the world our children live in?  Are we building walls and fences against the depredations of strangers, when 99% of child abductions are done by parents?   Yet another reason to count our blessings here on the Eastshore, where a child like Ponette could still find the freedom to learn and grow in her own time and space.

One very small caveat.  I think Doillon blew it at the end.  After about ten minutes into Ponette, when I realized how good it really was, I started to wonder how the story could possibly find a satisfactory resolution.  Doillon didn’t find it.  Perhaps because this is the only point in the film where he allowed an adult actor’s role to overshadow those of the children.  I won’t hold it against him.  He’s done his young charges proud, and then some.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

For the first time in a long while, I’ve struck out in trying to find a copy of this film for a second look.  It seems to be available on Amazon, so I’ll likely be able to update this section at some future date.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama | Childhood
Director: Jacques Doillon
Actors: Victoire Thivisol, Delphine Schiltz, Matiaz Bureau Caton, Léopoldine Serre, Marie Trintignant, Xavier Beauvois
Year: 1996
Original Review: May 1999


Henry Darger | Down the Rabbit Hole

The Secret Life and Art of Henry Darger

The Realms of the Unreal

Documentary filmmaking can take us into some very strange, disturbing places indeed.  I had never heard of Henry Darger until I followed up a reference to Jessica Yu’s 2004 Emmy-nominated documentary film In the Realms of the Unreal.  Once again, we have proof that truth will always be stranger than fiction.  I’ve included links to two shorter Darger films, and to Jessica Yu’s portrait.


Rakuten Viki

With Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) vaulting Korean cinema to the world stage, here are a couple of streaming services that offer up Korean films and television series.  Typing in “Korea” in the Search box for Netflix also reveals a wealth of programs for streaming.

What the 19 Movies to Receive an F from CinemaScore Have in Common

An reflection from Kevin Lincoln on one organization’s way of rating films, and why certain films end up at the bottom of the barrel—in some cases, not because they’re awful but because they run counter to audience expectations.  Check out the CinemaScore website to see what’s happening with the latest movies or to look up an old favorite.  Ford V Ferrari got an A+.  From Lincoln’s article:

“For those of you not in the habit of following the industry response to films, CinemaScore is a company that exit polls moviegoers’ opinions on opening night. It’s been around since 1979, and according to research analyst Harold Mintz, it’s been storing its data since 1986—or 30-plus years of audiences reacting to movies. Like grade-school or the signs you see in restaurant windows, CinemaScore’s grades range from A+ to F….”

Films Worth Talking About:

Cable Guy, Crash, Some Mother’s Son, Mission: Impossible, Trees Lounge, Walking and Talking, Flirting With Disaster, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Spitfire Grill, Jude, Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves, Extreme Measures, Evita, Lone Star, Independence Day, Twister, Eraser, The Rock, Trainspotting, The Nutty Professor, The First Wives Club, Tin Cup, Michael Collins, The Pillow Book, Fargo, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Craft, Emma, A Time to Kill, Striptease, Twelfth Night or What You Will, That Thing You Do!  Microcosmos: People of the Grass, The Whole Wide World

The Bigger Picture

FilmsThe Spirit of the Beehive (1973); The 400 Blows (1959); Forbidden Games (1952), Sundays and Cybele (1962)



The Word on the Street

I have wanted to see this movie for a very long time. At the time it was released, my own Mother had suddenly died and I knew that it would have been too intense for me to watch. Now, it is almost 11 years later and I have finally watched it and this is quite simply one of the most true-to-life portrayals of grief and the journey it becomes for really anyone. I was Ponette’s age when my father died and I can completely relate to her reactions, her agony and the confusion she portrayed. I can remember asking constantly when Daddy was coming back and not really accepting the answers that people were telling me. I also recall praying and talking to my father when I was alone in my room, begging him to come back and see me when no one else was around. I even had a dream about my father that was amazingly close to Ponette’s interaction with her mother. This rang so true for me that I couldn’t believe the writer of this story connected things in such a realistic way. Victoire Thivisol is shockingly real in this role.   [chattykathyp]

This beautiful and sensitive drama surprised a lot of people when won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 1996, given to a 5-year-old novice, Victoire Thivisol. She is really magnificent and, controversy aside, the important award recognized the biggest achievement in the film: Victoire reacts with amazing naturalness and outstanding facial expressions to the most intricate scenes.   [Benedict_Cumberpatch]

As I watched the movie, I had the impression that director Jacques Doillon had simply found a real-life tragedy and somehow followed the participants through it with his camera. Nothing in this film gives you the impression of having been written, scripted, staged, produced. It is all so completely natural that you experience first hand the pain, the emotional agony of Ponette, as if she were your own daughter, your own sister, even your own self.   [pjl-7]

But this is also a tour de force for Director Jacques Doillon who, one can see, taught the children to act, while they in turn taught him about their world. The magic on the screen is the magic in the world of the children and what they feel. We see them cope with the world they have been thrust into. We watch as they struggle to make sense of it through experience, fantasy and play. We see how they learn to distinguish between what adults think is real and what they themselves discover is real….

One may wonder how Doillon was able to get the children to be so good. It’s clear he had to immerse himself in their world and win their respect. He had to listen to them and remember what it was like to be a child. These children are creating their world, as all children are, right before our eyes, and usually we do not see because we are so filled with our own lives and with our preconceptions. The children must learn the world and experience it all for themselves, regardless of what we think. Doillon shows us that process through the eyes of the children and especially through the extraordinary eyes of four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, who will steal your heart and soul, I promise….

This is a beautiful, touching, and spiritually moving film, an original work of art.    [DeeNine-2]

The first thing that springs to mind after the viewing is that you would like to hail Doillon for the remarkable work he has provided with the children. He said that he listened many conversations between children for months before rewriting them in dialogs and that’s the main reason why his film has a larger than life vibe. Sometimes, you even wonder if you don’t watch a documentary. Working with children on a film set is very hard to do but it’s evident here that Doillon did everything possible to prepare his very young actors mentally to his cinematographic demands. So, little Victoire Thivisol and her partners really live their texts and it’s the world perceived with children’s eyes that is one of the real motors of the film.   [ddumonteil]

Ponette has the kind of metaphysical purity and innocence that the nineteenth-century French philosopher Jules Lequyer [also spelled Lequier] praised in The Hornbeam Leaf. Such questions! Such observations! No adult would think to say, as Ponette did, when her cousin pointed out that his grandfather didn’t come back from the dead, “No one was waiting for him.” No adult would think that it mattered whether anyone was waiting. Ponette’s cousin may not share Ponette’s convictions, but he takes them seriously. When his mother remarks to him that Ponette is “playing” at waiting for her mother to return, he corrects his mother: “No, she’s really waiting….”

One review I read of this movie described Ponette as an “old soul.” I agree, but would go beyond that: She has the potential someday to be a great spiritual leader, if her spirituality is not crushed out of her later. To me, this is the great “open question” at the end of the film: What becomes of such a soul? The vagaries of life being what they are, one can imagine that it could go either way for Ponette.   [tenpenny]